Manaus, Amazonas, June 1990
The narrow, uneven streets of Manaus are filled with a cacophony of shouts, honking cars, and music. Radios and sound systems blare. Noise is everywhere. The air is hot and humid. The thermometer indicates forty degrees Celsius. We find only one terrace, tucked away on the first floor of a run-down building. Across from it is the Palace of Justice, where the work schedule seems mainly to consist of an eternal siesta of coffee and lunch breaks.
At the agreed time, a not too tall but sturdy man approaches our table and introduces himself. His English and blond hair suggest an American in exile. Marco Lima, however, is a true Brazilian. During our conversation, he often mentions the word “respect”, in relation to both the nature and the inhabitants of the forest. He is clearly the guide we are looking for, and we decide to depart the following day. Our destination is the Anavilhanas Archipelago, a large group of islands in the Rio Negro between Manaus and the northern town of Nova Airão. A dockworkers’ strike the next morning proves no hindrance to our preparations for departure. The boat’s crew, aside from Marco, consists of a small boy with indigenous traits, Coruja, and a Creole named José. They both live on the Lajana, as the boat is named. As José steers the Lajana alongside a floating gas station towards open water, Marco provides us with some details about the area we are heading to, about the igapós, the blackwater-flooded forests in the Amazon biome. The clear black water of the Rio Negro is said to be poor, which is why, for example, there are far fewer insects than in the Amazon. Still, about three hundred different species of fish live in the river. Of these, the pirarucu, which can grow more than three meters long, is the largest. Overfishing threatens the survival of this second largest freshwater fish in the world.
As our boat steadily progresses, Marco points out the lush vegetation along the water, the air roots hanging down in long strands, the many parasites that grow and spread in the most diverse species on host trees. It is a wonderful sight with trees, each of which, due to the many ‘guests’, forms a capricious botanical garden. After a few hours of sailing, we pass some buildings on the shore, a sort of settlement, with an old-fashioned looking well and stairs carved into the coastal wall leading to the water. A leper colony. This is where the outcasts live.
Several hours later, after we have arrived in the area of the islands, we take a small paddle boat on a trip through the flooded forest. Marco points to a large concentration of air bubbles in the water. “Piranhas.” He himself has a few scars from bites, one between his eyes (“the piranha’s kiss”), but argues that it is possible to live with this voracious little fish, as long as you take into account its behavior. There are even periods when the piranha is vegetarian, living off tree fruits that grow close to the water. As evening approaches, we head for a tree standing upright in the middle of the water. Before the boat is secured, we check the branches for snakes. A single lizard is all that moves. It’s already dark. The hammocks are rolled out and hung up. It’s eight o’clock. Just as I fall asleep, I’m woken by the rain clattering on the upper deck. Huge flashes light up the surroundings in a ghostly light. While Marco and the two boys secure tarpaulins and steer the boat closer to the shore, I enjoy an unforgettable spectacle.
The next day promises to be beautiful, but it will bring a confrontation that will abruptly end our trip.
To be continued…